An assortment of loaf cakes in bite-size portions is kept on a plate covered with a glass dome. About four flavours of freshly-baked loaf cakes tempt every customer who walks into their outlet. I stand in front of the counter deciding what flavour to pick for a gift and then, to take home for teatime. A lady with a chef cap and a big smile gesture that I could choose my flavours by sampling the cakes. I opened the glass dome – one after the other and, happily chomped off all the flavours. It’s hard to resist the delicious treats. That’s Labonel, a French-inspired premium bakery that first opened its doors to Hyderabad in 1995 and hasn’t looked back. It has no reason to look back because they got it so right. Not just the ingredients in their cakes but in their services that allude not just generosity but a distinct class. Anyone who walks in can feel hugged and welcomed. Even though the cake sampling is on the house, I see no one taking advantage of the freebies. That is, one telling sign of a good community of people.
Yet at another prominent savoury outlet, the Almond House – which aptly calls itself the “Tastemakers of Hyderabad since 1989,” I am spoilt for choice. They usher you with a warm namaste as they sprinkle your hands with sanitisers. The artistic appeal of the sweets on display is nothing short of pieces of art. As usual, I taste every sweet before I buy. After having tasted at least five sweets and choosing what to take home, I head to the counter to pay. The manager smiled and said whatever I tasted was complimentary. I later learned that anyone who visits the Almond House is treated to sweets whether they buy or not.
Slowly, as I began to get a sense of Hyderabad, the place unravelled itself through its people. I absorb the whiff of the place, the vibes, the openness of mind and space, and the blue sky. Hyderabad often feels as if caught in its past – a Nawabi hangover from its grandiose long gone. That grandiosity of a bygone era has a lingering impact on its people. It seems to have instilled in them a sense of mutual respect; courtesy and perhaps a good degree of kindness. It isn’t the eye of a mere optimist that sees only the good. It is indeed easy for the eyes and mind’s eye to read and gauge that essence of humaneness that’s there. I can sieve fluff from full; fake from fact and real from the reel. And what I see is far from fake. Gradually, as the city unravels itself through the many characters of the people I encountered – I allow more and more casts to define the place for me. In their simple yet trusting nature, I see a past where goodness had been a hallmark of their history. A place that has gracefully imbibed and embraced a multitude of influences to shape its character rather than segregate. Truly, it is in that cohesive collectiveness that it qualifies to be known as the centre of culture. And only a cultured establishment that abides in the rich elements of its past can steer towards advancement in all fields. Pegged as the next IT hub of India, it also makes a parallel mark in the healthcare sector, among others. Its amalgamated past of the Nizams and that of the Mughals cast a magical spell and not a shadow in the present, in the ‘now.’ There is that sense, that vestige which is indescribable yet forceful enough to engage you to take home and learn.
The “andaz” with which the Nawabs and the Mughals conducted themselves under their blue blood does have a definite rub-off on its people long after only their palatial palaces remain. And interestingly, that rub-off has little or nothing to do with how much wealth the people have – that “andaz” cuts across all economic divides and it is an equaliser as I see it. I saw it in the rich and famous whose homes I visited, and then on the streets, autowallahs and particularly and unforgettably even in a lady shoemaker who sits all day near a metro station oddly repairing and shining shoes. It is the dignity and pride with which she does her job that’s glorifying. She is the offspring of nobility. I watched from a distance as menfolk came in batches to get their shoes shined and stitched. Not even one among the many cast their lustful or evil eyes on her or in any other way except as a professional in her own right doing a job. Anyone disturbing that idyllic setting is a far-fetched possibility. I could not think of a more shining example of culture!
Thus, one after the other, the cast and characters of the city wow me. One day a medical equipment supplier came to our rented apartment in my absence to collect one of his equipment. On my return, two packets of Phillips spare parts were left on our coffee table. I called the guy to inform them that he left behind his packets. “Those are not mine,” he said. When I inspected the packet, it had brand new Phillips parts costing about 8 to 9 grants. He might as well have taken them and I would have never known.
Truly, as sociologists put forth time and again, I see how human behaviours and attitudes have a huge potential to create an opinion of a place for outsiders. Yes, they are the truest clues to a place.
In their 2019 ranking, Mercer’s Quality of Living rankings put Hyderabad as the best city to live in India, for the fifth year in a row. It placed the city at 143 in the world. The ranking parameters are based on 39 categories like consumer goods, economic environment, housing, medical and health considerations, public health transport, political and social environment, school and education to name a few. Mercer’s Quality of Living Reports may not have taken into account the intangible narratives of the place and people which would have perhaps put Hyderabad at a much higher slot.
Once again, I inhale that tranquil air of calm soothing the lungs. Like every other cosmopolitan city in India, Hyderabad too is on the go. But not in an aggressive mode that it chokes and overwhelms its people. It does not push yet it gently nudges its people to be on track. On the road, with perhaps as much traffic as in other cities, needless honking is rare. That civility on the road helps evince the real progress of mindset.
When I sat in an ambulance and traversed through the city far too many times, it might not have been a joy ride but it sure was a smooth ride. Simply because nearly every driver on the road made way as quickly as they could. The city moves at a unique pace: fast yet slow; quick yet with no sense of urgency. I can capture a sense of the city’s soul through the experiential and rhythmical flow of life.
Another morning, as I was to attend the funeral of our dear Lata aunty, I went to the closest florist to get a wreath. I asked to get a wreath but I was told it had to be pre-ordered. So, I pointed at a bouquet on the shelf and asked if I could have the same made with fresh flowers. The wilted lilies and ferns of the previous day must be replaced, I voiced. A rather aggressive man tried hard to convince me that those wilted flowers were fresh and the bouquet was made a few hours ago. Of all the people, that man had to choose me, someone, who could tell the freshness of a fruit or a plant just by the look of it. I thought it was pointless to counter the silly man. I only asked this: “Are you from Hyderabad? I knew I would get my answers and sure enough, I did. He was from one of the cow belt states – the name I shall withhold for he isn’t a true representative of that cow belt state either. Another man walked in and said that the flowers were a few days old and that he would replace them with fresh flowers of the day. I complimented the man for keeping alive that Nawabi spirit. I shamed the man, an outsider, for his audacity to mar that sacred image of the city.
Over the months, the many I have met and interacted with have quietly whispered their deepest fears of losing the spirit of Hyderabad which is slowly on the wane. Many outsiders have also come with bags and baggage to make Hyderabad their home. I hope that they respect and love the host city enough to assimilate rather than disrupt the rhythmic course of the place. I hope the new force from outside never corrupts the inherent values of the people. For Hyderabad, of course, the biggest test would be how they remain rooted and keep their culture of grace and grandness intact timelessly.
I hope that the city flourishes and continues to bask in its past glory not in a way that thwarts their journey ahead but as a reminder of who they truly are. May that realisation help them surge ever higher.
(Hoihnu Hauzel is an independent journalist and founder of www.thenestories.com and www.northeastodyssey.com)